Wording matters: Social media posts shape how vulnerable people think about mental illness

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In today’s digital age, social media platforms like X (formerly Twitter) have become an integral part of our daily lives, particularly for young adults. A recent study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University has revealed that even subtle differences in the wording of social media messages can significantly influence college students’ beliefs about depression, anxiety, and their treatment.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, involved 322 undergraduate students who were randomly assigned to view posts about mental health with either a “growth mindset,” a “fixed mindset,” or a control condition where the posts did not involve mental health at all.

A growth mindset refers to the belief that a feature, such as mental health, can be improved with effort, while a fixed mindset is the belief that a feature can’t change, no matter how hard you try.

“These relatively subtle messages may be influencing whether they believe they have any possibility of working through their depression and anxiety and getting better,” says lead study author Whitney Whitted, a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State, in a media release.

Sad woman in bed looking at smartphone
Researchers find even subtle differences in the wording of social media messages can significantly influence college students’ beliefs about depression, anxiety, and their treatment. (Photo by DimaBerlin on Shutterstock)

Participants who read the growth mindset tweets were more likely to say that depression and anxiety don’t have to be permanent conditions and that people can take steps to alleviate the symptoms. In contrast, those who read the fixed mindset tweets had less optimistic views about the permanence of mental illness and the ability of people to treat it.

“It was just a few minutes of people reading these tweets with small variations in how the messages about mental illness were framed,” notes study co-author Jennifer Cheavens, a professor of psychology at Ohio State. “But it made a difference in what these participants reported they believed.”

The results of this study have important implications for mental health treatment. Growth mindset social media messages may help persuade people with depression or anxiety that it is worthwhile to seek help. Additionally, for those already in therapy, these messages can provide a boost and help persuade them that working hard in therapy can pay off in the end.

“We want our clients to put in the hard work necessary to overcome their problems – but they have to believe it is possible,” says Cheavens.

The findings are especially relevant given the amount of time young people spend on social media. Participants in this study reported using social media for one to three hours a day.

“What we found is that what young adult college students view on social media has the potential to impact what they believe about mental illness,” adds Whitted.

phone depression
Growth mindset social media messages may help persuade people with depression or anxiety that it is worthwhile to seek help. (Photo by Alex Green from Pexels)

It is crucial that the messages young people receive on social media accurately reflect what we know about mental illness, especially the fact that it is treatable.

“This study suggests there may be ways to give them a boost, to help persuade them that working hard in therapy can pay off in the end,” concludes Cheavens.

As we continue to navigate the digital landscape, it is essential to be mindful of the impact that even subtle changes in the wording of social media messages can have on our beliefs and attitudes towards mental health. By promoting growth mindset messages, we can foster a more optimistic and supportive environment for those struggling with depression and anxiety, encouraging them to seek help and believe in their ability to overcome their challenges.

StudyFinds’ Matt Higgins contributed to this report.

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